7 Tips to Pick a Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Car Rental
My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
Open skies, rolling waves, and winding roads – the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic road trips in the world, and for good reason. People flock from across the U.S. and globe to slide behind the wheel and meander down (or up) the U.S. coast through California, Oregon, and Washington. Driving a Pacific Coast Highway road trip is truly a bucket list experience for many – including me!
I drove the PCH for the first time in 2014; I arranged a Ford Mustang in San Diego as my Pacific Coast Highway car rental, and drove all 1700 miles up to Seattle in about 7 days. Since then, I’ve driven portions of the Pacific Coast Highway many times, in many different vehicles – and I’ve learned a thing or two about the best car to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway.
In this post, I’m going to share my thoughts on the best car for the Pacific Coast Highway, and how to arrange your Pacific Coast Highway car rental to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip unforgettable – but not for your wallet or blood pressure. Read on to discover my tips on choosing the right PCH rental car
In this post, I promote travel to areas that are the traditional lands of many groups of Indigenous and Native American peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in August 2014, and was updated in October 2021.
1. Arrange a One-Way Car Rental
Unless you are driving your own vehicle (which would be odd, considering you ended up on my article about car rentals), I recommend arranging your Pacific Coast highway car rental one way. This means that you will pick it up at one end of the PCH (such as Seattle or San Diego) and drop it off at the other end (or the various start/endpoints you choose along the way).
Almost all car rental agencies offer one-way rentals (you usually have to tick a box that says something like “Return to a different location” to get a second place to enter your drop-off spot), but my two favorites are Fox Rent-A-Car and Sixt; I’ve rented from both of them, including for my own PCH road trip. No matter which company you choose, a Pacific Coast Highway one-way car rental will save you lots of time returning the car at the opposite end of the PCH from where you picked it up.
2. Don’t Rent in Los Angeles
If you are starting your PCH road trip in Southern California and heading northbound, do not – I repeat do not – rent or return your car at LAX. The cost of your rental car can be up to $200 more expensive if you arrange it through LAX, especially when you’re only renting for a one-way trip.
Instead, try other airports in the area. In San Diego or Long Beach, rental companies are more likely to compete for customers with lower prices. In the end, that will help you get a better deal (which is good, since gas prices on the West Coast will definitely eat up the difference!).
Los Angeles is a good stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, but if you don’t rent or return your car here, you can make it a budget-friendly PCH road trip!
3. Opt for a Car with a Lower Center of Gravity
When it comes time to select your PCH car rental, opt for a vehicle that has a low center of gravity. the lower center of gravity, the better your driving experience will be.
You do not want an SUV with any chance of rolling. Even in a low car, you’re going to have to slow down a lot to make the hairpin turns. In a bigger car, you’re going to miss out on half of the thrill of driving the PCH.
For my trip, a Ford Mustang was a great choice because while I would have bottomed out on a speed bump, there aren’t any speed bumps on the PCH – just glorious winding roads that my car hugged like a dream.
5. Skip the Soft-Top/Convertible
I thought I was being really cool renting a Mustang Convertible to drive up the coast. I thought of blue skies and blowing wind and sexy windswept hair.
Instead, I was always putting the top up and down. Sometimes the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 10 minutes. Other times I got sunburned and couldn’t bear it. As long as your car has windows you can roll down, that’s enough to enjoy the experience without the extra charge for a luxury or exotic rental car for the Pacific Coast Highway.
6. Go Automatic, Not Manual
Speaking of those mountains and turns, you don’t want to be constantly shifting up and down, up and down…
As an owner of manual transmission cars, I can tell you that your legs will get really tired if you choose a manual transmission for the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead, opt for the ease of an automatic when choosing your Pacific Coast Highway car rental. You’ll be more comfortable, and the car will get less wear and tear.
Plus, you’ll be able to accelerate more quickly when it’s safe to, or when you’re passing someone!
6. Ensure You’ll Have Music
This tip isn’t strictly about choosing the best car for the Pacific Coast Highway, but it’s a feature/part of the experience to keep in mind.
Long stretches of the PCH have no radio or cell service. Ensure you’re all set by either confirming your car has Apple Play, a phone jack (and you’ve got playlists loaded), or buying an AM/FM transmitter for your phone. Make sure you’ve downloaded a few Spotify playlists or loaded an audiobook into iTunes, and you’re set.!
Additionally, make sure you have a way to stay charged – cigarette lighter ports are now perfect for USB charging! On a 7 hour day, you won’t want to spend it listening to static interspersed with country music and NPR (can you tell I didn’t plan ahead on this one?).
7. Bring a Navigator and/or Photographer
This isn’t so much related to the car, but having a companion will make your Pacific Coast Highway road trip a lot more enjoyable!
While the winding roads will keep you from falling asleep when you’re alone, someone with a map and camera in hand can grab snaps of all the things you miss while driving, as well as point out important rest areas/sight-seeing opportunities along the way. Also, they’ll also have the power to pick the music, so make sure they’re really awesome before letting them ride shotgun!
Have other questions about picking the best Pacific Coast Highway car rental? Let me know in the comments!
These are all great tips! I totally agree on getting an automatic car. Even if I’m used to drive manual, I would never rent a manual car to drive the PCH. It so much less stress to get an automatic!
Also, yes, skip renting in LA and especially the LAX! When I was there I made that mistake and ended up paying a bit more because of a lot of useless added taxes. Also, we had to wait in line for almost an hour before getting to the counter, because of all the people that were renting from there.
Glad you find these tips helpful too – LAX is definitely the least friendly place to rent a car, no matter what the reason!
Great tips, Valerie! I have to say the PCH is still my favorite drive in the world, even after all these years it never gets old! Driving a Ford Mustang sounds like such a fun experience, even if the convertible option wasn’t as great as you thought it would be. I can only imagine how well it would hug those curves. I remember driving up the PCH last year from San Diego in a beat up Dodge cargo van from circa 1993, that had definitely seen better days. Driving those winding roads around Big Sur area was so scary haha. I thought for sure she was going to fizzle out at the top of one of the hills, luckily that didn’t happen.
Hah, yeah that Dodge sounds terrifying!! Big Sur was stunning, I just wish I’d had someone else driving so I could take more pictures 🙂
We’re looking into visiting LA in the next year and would most likely have to rent a car–I’ve already noticed that the car rental prices at LAX are sky high! Hope I’ll figure out a good option between now and then! Your roadtrip sounds like a very cool experience!
Great options include San Diego and Palm Beach 🙂 They’re both significantly cheaper, and depending on where you’re traveling in LA, may even be closer than LAX!
I am born and raised in LA and I have been DYING to drive the entirety of PCH! Your photos are gorgeous!
Thanks very much! 🙂
My boyfriend and I are driving from SF to LA at the end of feb/early march and just don’t know what car to rent! We’re seeing so many conflicting reviews! We like the idea of renting an SUV for comfort and space and better height for the views and just all round driving in the states but are also keen on a convertible for the pch ride and the flexibility to have the top up/down. You say don’t get an SUV or convertible but so many people say a convertible is non negotiable! Some say they are too low down to see anything Ahh don’t know whats best! Can you elaborate/help? x
Linsey, thanks for your comment. Maybe I didn’t explain well, but here’s what I think of each type of car:
SUV – Too tall and big – you’re going to have to slow way down for the many hairpin turns, and unless you drive that specific make/model of SUV regularly, you’ll probably not enjoy the actual driving process.
Convertible – the convertible feature is actually not super useful. Being squished between the mountains and the coast, the PCH actually doesn’t have “classic” California weather. It’s more like the Bay Area weather most days – fog, possible rain, and chilly air (even in June, when I drove the PCH!). You’ll end up spending more time putting the top up and down than actually enjoying the “extra” view – speaking from my experience.
I’d recommend a hatchback or crossover, like a Subaru Forester or Toyota Juke, for more spaciousness and safety without being too low OR too high from the ground. There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view, the convertible doesn’t help *that* much, and a bigger SUV will feel too big.
Does this help?
Sadly, it’s safe to say that renting a car at any airport is more costly these days. The San Diego airport is no longer immune from the same outrageous fees that may have been once only associated with larger airports like LAX. I live in North San Diego County which is too far from the airport for a rental there to make sense for me anyway, but I’ve researched it for friends coming to visit. I make it a habit to explore car rental costs at non-airport locations and it always results in a savings, whether in large metro areas like Minneapolis, where I saved $1,000, or a smaller city like Montgomery, AL. The taxi or Uber fare to the off-airport rental office has always been worth it for me in the long-run.
Great advice, Pat. Off airport and downtown rentals are increasingly the better budget option!
Valerie – love your tips. Had been thinking of taking a train from Seattle to Los Angeles but now thinking driving would be better. You didn’t touch on the matter of lodging. Would you say you need to make definite plans and reserve lodging along the way before the trip or will it be possible to either stop when you want or maybe call a couple hours ahead? Also – what time of year do you suggest for this drive? Thanks – D
Dorothy, thanks for reading! I actually have a huge post about the Pacific Coast Highway with nots of tips for EVERYTHING you need to book ahead: https://www.valisemag.com/pacific-coast-highway-guide/
Valerie, Love your tips! Will be traveling North (Seattle) to South (SF), road trip. I read your tips on cars, no SUV’s. Are there plenty of rest areas to take photos? This is our first tip on PCH. Thanks!
Thanks for your comment, Sue! Rest areas vary from region to region, but generally speaking, yes, there are plenty. The most popular sights definitely have rest stops and view points. Have a great trip!
Great read and photos. Here’s my opinion on convertibles, having made that drive 2-3 times. Convertibles are great at lower speeds with the occasional high speed run (like between stoplights). For me, after a while, the joy of the wind in your hair quickly becomes the irritation of the hair in your face. So when driving on freeways or highways, I almost always kept the top up. So, while weather can have an impact, if you want to make this drive with a convertible, I suggest that you keep the top up during the runs between towns, then put it down to enjoy the ocean air and sunshine in town.
Thanks for chiming in, Brad! I agree – I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for a convertible, having done it myself. You can save a lot of money choosing a non-convertible car!
I read your article/blog when researching my trip to Carmel (Monterey, Big Sur, San Simeon area) in the Spring of 2019 and it was helpful … Although I’ll respectfully disagree with your suggestion not to rent a convertible (maybe don’t rent a mustang convertible, it seems every 10th car on Hwy. 1 between Monterey and Cambria was a mustang convertible rental … or don’t rent a convertible if you’re not a convertible person/used to the idiosyncrasies of convertibles).
Our top was down whenever it wasn’t raining, and the evening we went to dinner at Sierra Mar (it only rained our first complete day in the area).
Modern convertibles with wind blockers, and the ability to raise and lower the roof at up to 35 miles an hour, makes transitioning much easier, add heated seats and proper attire and it’s wonderful.
I enjoyed driving in both the North and South directions, as one gets a different perspective/view each way … it’s also significantly different in the early morning versus the late afternoon because of sun angles.
Ciao … RJ
Thanks for your comments, John. Broadly speaking, I think people will feel they paid too much for the convertible option given how cold they will be if they use it – or how little they will use it if they don’t want to be cold. To each their own though!
Thanks for sharing this viewpoint. I found this site while planning a trip on the PCH and was curious when she noted to not use a convertible for the trip. So I clicked over to this page to see why because we were planning on using our own vehicle – a Mustang Convertible.
Great info. Looking to go September 2021 (like you recommended). Also had planned to get a convertible, not now!!!
Thanks for reading, Terry! These are good decisions all around – so much of California is still (rightly!) closed that the experience won’t be good until everything can safely reopen!
Thanks for all of the info! Your entire site has been great to discover.
– Is it normal for “one way drop off” fees to be around $400?
-Do you think beginning of June (2021) will be a safe time to make the drive with COVID?
JH, thanks for reading. To answer your questions, yes, $400 is totally normal for a one-way drop fee. And two, I think it will be safe if you plan ahead – book your accommodations in advance and try to find places with limited contact options. Also be prepared to wear your mask whenever out and about around others since we do have a state mask mandate. Lastly, part of the PCH is actually closed right now due to a landslide (see my post here for details: https://www.valisemag.com/pacific-coast-highway-guide/) so I would keep an eye on the updates otherwise you won’t be able to drive that portion in Big Sur.
We are flying to Seattle on the 7th of September and we asked our travel agent to not book any hotels along the way. We’re doing the 10 trip down to san Diego. Bad idea? I welcome your comments/suggestions
I recommend booking hotels in advance, so you know you’ve got a room waiting each day – otherwise you may turn up and spend time trying to find somewhere with limited success.
I came over to your posts via pinterest and loved it…I have a single question to ask you as I am flying from Brasil and my ticket is rio-san francisco-rio so I’ll have to deliver my rental car back in SF….I’m planning to go all the way to San Diego so do you have any tips on my way back road trip?it is better to go on the inland highway?
thanks a lot!x
I’d just take I-5 back up – it’s boring but the fastest way back. Another option might be to do a one-way car rental and take the Amtrak back to SF or fly. I hope that helps!
Thanks for the tips & heads up. I’m doing my home work and planning it now. This article was the first little bit I found.
Awesome – glad to help, Mark! I have an entire guide to the PCH here if it helps: https://www.valisemag.com/pacific-coast-highway-guide/
Ciao Valeria, il tuo blog è davvero fantastico, ricco di mille suggerimenti e dettagli che sono super utili per strutturare un viaggio coast to coast!! Ne approfitto per chiederti alcune info, ho letto che la macchina partendo da San Francisco è preferibile non consegnarla a LAX per non pagare cifre esorbitanti ma a San Diego o Long Beach. Avendo il volo di ritorno a LAX come posso raggiungerlo se riconsegno la macchina in uno di quei due posti prima citati? A settembre che temperature trovo? (perchè mi sto spaventando leggendo di cambi climatici repentini)
Grazie mille in anticipo 🙂
Thanks for reading, Veronica. Regarding returning your rental car, if you are flying from LAX, you will either need to pay for a taxi, fly, or maybe take the train depending on where you drop the car off. Regarding weather, Google is your best resource for that type of historic info!
Hi Valerie. I did a 1600 mile road trip in 14 days this summer beginning in San Francisco, going inland to Napa, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park and then over to Monterey Bay to begin the PCH portion of the trip which went right now to San Diego. I want to do the Northern California, Oregon and Washington portions of the coast but I encountered a surprising effect on the inland part of the trip. Driving in the mountains, especially around Tahoe and Yosemite was not enjoyable for me and I had to cut the trip short and head over to the coast a day early. My travel companion took over the driving in Monterey. I think I had PTSD from driving in the Sierras. I am obsessing over whether I will be as freaked out if I do the drive down the coast. Do you have any insight to offer about this? I appreciate that you are advising on the difference the choice of car can make. We were in a Prius Hybrid. It was the constant up and down, hairpin turns and the sense of height that seemed to affect me. Should I just give up on the idea of doing the northern part of the PCH?
Good question – if you don’t like hairpin turns and height, the northern PCH is not going to be a fun drive for you. It’s a lot like Big Sur for major potions of the drive.
Hi Valerie, we’re planning to di this trip in April, southbound from San Francisco to LA. How is this time of the year to do it? I know at this moment are having problem with the weather. Thanks for your comments
I can’t speak to the exact weather, but I wouldn’t do this trip in April personally – you’re much less likely to have great weather along the Pacific Northwest and Northern California parts of the PCH. I hope that helps!
I’m travling the PCH with my family, total 6 of us. What car should we get or is it better to drive 2 cars?? thanks
Irina, I’d get one car – especially if you’re doing a one-way rental!